Stratford headmaster’s hopes for reform that helps disadvantaged children

January is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, who was usually depicted with two faces, one looking backwards and the other forwards. Therefore, it is a time when people review the past and make new resolutions.

Stratford School Principal Neil Wallace (54534026)

The Department of Education is preparing a white paper to be released in the spring outlining its future priorities. Reducing the disadvantaged gap should be at the heart of this objective, even if education is only one of the areas where this gap manifests itself.

The current fashion in government circles is for “evidence-based” actions. Alas, sometimes the evidence highlights the problem without necessarily providing an effective solution.

The Education Policy Institute estimated in 2019 that the gap between GCSE results in English and maths for pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium and their peers would only close in 2581, or around 20 generations! Their 2020 annual report went further, suggesting the gap is not closing, while their 2021 report revealed that a three-year funding package totaling £13.5billion will be required by the government to reverse the damage to student learning as a result of the pandemic.

There has been additional funding with the government promoting a National Tutoring Program (NTP) encouraging schools to purchase subsidized tuition for disadvantaged pupils. This only scratches the surface and much of this funding is outsourced to private companies employing tutors, which seems like an unfortunate misdirection of valuable funding. One of NTP’s tuition partners highlights its “excellent track record of delivering high-impact tuition” in its first-year impact report. They then note that for GCSE students the average attendance rate was 45%, with only 49% of these students progressing in Maths and only 49% of these students progressing in English. Thus, a minority of targeted students actually engage; and a minority of them are making progress! It may be time to rethink the “evidence” of a flagship national program with very limited impact.

The rationale for the NTP initiative is rooted in research from the Education Endowment Foundation suggesting that tutoring can boost progress for up to five months, with “abundant evidence” showing that tutoring is one of the most powerful tools. effective in supporting learning. However, this comes with some caveats that question the validity of outsourcing support to external companies. Tuition is more likely to have an impact when there is an understanding of the individual student and this knowledge is used to select content that relates appropriately to what is taught in the curriculum. This is less likely to happen with an external tutor unrelated to the school.

It is perhaps unsurprising that assessments conducted by NTP-related organizations generally show greater impacts. After all, why wouldn’t a company seek to justify its funding stream? At least this year has seen the addition of a school-led tutoring route giving schools some flexibility to organize things themselves, which is a step in the right direction.

Hopefully the spring white paper will seek to prioritize funding for schools to do what is best in their context. It is clear that the disadvantage gap is not a problem that only concerns education. Last week we discovered that three of our underprivileged students had never seen a dentist.

GCSE English and maths grades are only part of a bigger problem. Further investment is needed beyond schools – in broader services for children and mental health services; supported by an urgent child poverty strategy. There is no silver bullet to this problem, but it does require joint thinking to address pre-existing inequalities in our society.

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